No Longer a Fringe Group
The movement of Alexander Men today
M o s c o w – Following the murder of Alexander Men, the great Orthodox reformer, in the Moscow suburb of Novaya Derevnya on 9 September 1990, Western Christendom placed great hopes in his leading followers. One of them was Alexander Ilyich Borisov (born 1939), a Ph.D. in genetics not able to be ordained prior to 1989 because of suspect, undercover activities (including samizdat). The soft-spoken and modest Borisov had been appointed a deacon in 1970; in 1991 he was named pastor of the newly-resuscitated “Church of the Saints Cosmas and Damian”. It stands at a central location just across from the Moscow courthouse and not more than 100 metres from “Hotel Lux”, the legendary refuge of foreign communists during the 1930s and 1940s. This church structure made visible the transition of Alexander Men’s movement from a village chapel into the very centre of Moscow life. Today, this church is still active in preserving and promoting his heritage.
Alexander Borisov responds quickly to any question regarding the martyr’s specific contribution: „He always stressed the importance of the Bible. It was very clear to him that Christian renewal was impossible without knowledge of the Bible.” Only through a study of the Scriptures is Orthodox teaching made complete. Borisov adds: “We Orthodox possess a rich history of stories, culture, icons and music - but we also need a joint reading of Scripture. And to concern oneself with Scripture is by no means un-Orthodox.“ Beginning in 1991, Alexander Ilyich was for two decades president of the inter-confessional Russian Bible Society.
This priest is uncomfortable with the asceticism and plainness of Protestant life: Russian Protestants tend to do without impressive church buildings and beautiful music – its expression is largely limited to the spoken word. “Much is too simple and too superficial.” But he admits: “We lack the incredible variety of Protestants. They have more freedom than we do. Yet actually we have everything Protestants also have – plus our culture.” He concedes that he has learned about the importance of fellowship, dialogue and joint prayer from Pentecostals. Only in this fashion can relationships between individual believers develop. The congregation at Cosmas and Damian is known today for its dozens of Bible study groups.
Father Alexander authored a book in the 1980s which was only legally published in 1994: „Pobelevishe Nivy“ (Fields White Already to Harvest, as stated in John 4:35). It pointed to the urgency of mission and the fact that a closed and relatively uneducated clergy was in no way up to the task of evangelisation. The book’s Christ-centred orientation was apparent in the warning that icons may “distract us from the fact that Christ and his Gospel stand in the centre of church life”. His book, which was never translated, was so unconventional that Patriarch Alexy II (1929-2008) inquired in jest as to whether Borisov’s wife might have written it. (Nonna Borisova belonged to a Pentecostal congregation from the early 1970s to about 1997.)
Yet the course of history has dispelled Father Alexander’s fears. He recalls: “In the 80s we fantasized that the working class would become Protestant and the intelligentsia Catholic. Only the grandmas would remain in the Orthodox fold. But now we see that, despite all of its shortcomings, the great majority has opted for Orthodoxy.” He reports that Protestants and Catholics combined only make up 1% of Moscow’s population – 70% though regard themselves as Orthodox. Yet he concedes that only 10% of these practice their Orthodox faith. The shortcomings he lists include the grandmas (“babushki”) who continue to patrol Orthodox churches and supply all visitors with an immediate, unrequested examination of skirt length, head covering and footwear.
No rabid liberal
Gleb Yakunin, once a cohort of Borisov, could be described as a darling of the West and its media. This dissident (born 1934), who rose to prominence during the Soviet period, now serves as Secretary to the Synod for the renegade, 2004-founded “Apostolic Orthodox Church”. Borisov in contrast remained a close friend of Patriarch Alexy. The deceased patriarch not only protected him as head pastor of Cosmas and Damian, but also bestowed on him the title of archpriest (“protoierei”) in 2000. Borisov sees in him an open, cosmopolitan thinker: “Alexy regarded the division of the church as a great, historical sin. He never agreed with those who denied the necessity of ecumenism.”
Though Alexander Ilyich is himself a convinced supporter of the ecumenical concept, he interprets the increasing distance between the Moscow Patriarchate and other churches since the middle of the 1990s as an unavoidable process. “It’s a matter of identity and self-understanding”, he assures. “The securer we become in our self-understanding, the more open we can become to other confessions.” He regards good neighbourliness as the best possible option for the time being “with each continuing to reside in his own flat”. Citing the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes of New Testament fame, he explains that inter-confessional cooperation will never become a concern of the entire church. Even the discussion groups in his own congregation possess few non-Orthodox participants.
More than once, Father Alexander has hosted a joint Christmas party for Orthodox and Baptist children. Yet he sees in the issue of “rebaptism” a deep divide between Orthodox and Baptist circles. He interprets the non-recognition of sacraments as denial of the other side’s Christianity – a death knell for any hopes of inter-confessional progress. “We recognise a Baptist baptism if it occurs in the name of the triune God”, he insists. “Among Roman Catholics we even recognise a priest’s ordination if and when he transfers to us.”
The archpriest is not optimistic regarding the future of the worldwide ecumenical movement. He views the placing of efforts aimed at halting the recognition of homosexuality on par with anti-Semitism as a major offense vis-à-vis the conservative, Christian majority. “In this matter, Western churches have crossed over the boundary of acceptable tolerability”, he concludes. “They will cause great damage in their relations with Eastern churches – as well as among themselves. Here they are pushing an unbiblical position.” He sees the ordination of women as a second issue reaching beyond the boundaries of “acceptable tolerability”.
Yet in global East-West politics, Borisov sees no reason for undue pessimism. While decrying their activities, the priest also condemns the sentencing of two members of the female punk group “P*Riot” (or “Kitty Riot”) to multi-year imprisonment. He compares this to a youngster having his arm hacked off for stealing a loaf of bread. “This is a political case,” he explains. He nevertheless cannot imagine a renewed cold war in the foreseeable future. “Many of our leading politicians are oriented towards the West – their families and money already reside there.”
Despite the moral vacuum of present-day Russian society, he remains assured regarding the future of Alexander Men’s movement: “Our acceptance within church circles is still increasing.” It would be very incorrect to describe us as an Orthodox fringe group.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 08 December 2012
This is an independent journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #12-29, 1.143 words, 7.250 keystrokes and spaces.